THE much-anticipated ministerial meeting of the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (Focac), which starts today in Beijing, is early this year. Every three years, African states and China meet, but this time the meeting is taking place four months earlier than its usual end-of-year perch, and the timing caught some African participants by surprise.

What's the rush? A volatile mix of domestic political scandal and the scheduled personnel changes at the helm of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at the end of the year may be at work.

We have seen some domestic political soap operas, much to the ruling party's chagrin. In any case, the CCP wants to separate one high-profile domestic political event from the international other, if only to be better able to manage the media and communications surrounding both.

Chinese tactical scheduling aside, is Africa ready for Focac?

Focac is a platform for officials to evaluate the achievements and discuss the perspectives of Sino-African relations. It was established in October 2000 in Beijing, and the years since 2000 have seen growing political, economic and diplomatic exchanges.

Consequently, the global interest in China-Africa relations is rising, too. Since the inception of Focac, relations between China and Africa have become more complex, in numerous fields, such as politics, economics, investments, trade, south-south co-operation and aid.

The ministerial meeting between China and African states is part of China's strategic foreign policy towards Africa to secure its diplomatic and economic interests and position itself in the global political and economic order.

Beijing published a policy paper called China Africa Policy in 2006 already, symbolically underlining a long-term interest in Africa. Among the goals formulated for the first meeting was the treating of each member state as an equal and respecting each other's sovereignty and not interfering in each other's internal affairs, as well as seeking mutual development and enhancing consultation and co-operation in international affairs.

Since 2000, four ministerial meetings have been organised: the initial one in Beijing and thereafter in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (2003), Beijing (2006) and Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt (2009). The 2006 meeting in Beijing thus far has received most public attention; it was the first meeting held as a fully fledged China-Africa summit. African presidents and heads of state, high-level representatives from 48 countries as well as entrepreneurs attended the Focac summit in Beijing in November 2006.

From the Chinese side, the debate is more centred on an economic, diplomatic and political framework relying on south-south co-operation. Declarations after summits are a key diplomatic tool in international relations, and like other summit declarations, these documents more or less vaguely list all points of agreement and assess the situation between the actors.

In addition, however, resulting joint actions are put under action plans to provide guidelines for projects financing and implementation. Action plans are also offering opportunities to announce a number of measures to be taken in relation to each Focac meeting.

While China has clear programmes for the Focac meetings, Africa has a clear structural disadvantage: it consists of 54 states, of which 50 have diplomatic relations with Beijing.

This grouping is unable to present one detailed agenda. Outcomes should be of paramount importance, and often are not.

Yet, multilateral settings require a functioning process. The Focac follow-up is far less institutionalised and individual states handle the process differently, if at all. There is no joint secretariat or other monitoring entity. Co-ordination is - at best - ad hoc with African diplomatic missions in Beijing and through the Chinese embassies in African countries.

The short notice of Focac's scheduling has been disruptive to most African governments that are due to attend, and some co-ordination was necessary to avoid a scheduling conflict with the regular June meeting of the African Union.

Yet, frankly, the meeting as such did not come as a surprise. African governments have had just about three years to make sure they are ready, and none of those years has gone by without significant interaction with China either.

Focac is one larger part of an expanding China-Africa relationship that continues to evolve, the forum notwithstanding.

Focac has contributed to deepening the relationship, with dedicated forums on legal and sociocultural affairs, political and economic think-tank meetings, trade agreements and educational exchanges.

It is, first and foremost, providing a high-profile international event. All of this is on top of all the pageantry of normal bilateral relations.

As Focac approaches a decade-and-a-half of life, the time for pageantry is over, and proactivity in the relationship, especially from the African side, should be the order of the day. The scope and growth of the relationship is not the key issue any longer, but the quality of the relationship is. As a south-south relationship, it should not replicate the structure of north-south linkages - and yet, it does: African states - including South Africa - mostly export unprocessed raw materials and import manufactured goods.

Two years ago, our Centre for Chinese Studies published a report that highlighted major challenges in Focac from an African perspective. We focused on five African countries and two regional organisations in our study and concluded that African actors should put six aspects at the top of their agendas in order to make the most effective use of the opportunities the forum presented. The issues remain much the same nowadays. Issues we listed back then were:

. Develop labour rights and legislation and pay special attention to local workers' skills;

. Focus on the establishment of joint ventures to build capacity;

. Find solutions to multifaceted language barriers in Sino-African relations;

. Appoint China co-ordinators in key government departments;

. Reassess the value and insights the civil society organisations can bring to developing Focac's agenda; and

. Synthesise local solutions to the "made in China" problem besieging industries and markets, particularly construction.

True, there has been some progress, and some of it meaningful: think-tank forums abound, migration between China and Africa is growing, in educational exchange and also in capital and goods and services, Mandarin language uptake across the continent is increasing, and civil society is a voice to reckon with in many African governance arenas.

Yet, the core concern remains the coherence of this progress. Where are the advocates for the African cause on the continent? Co-ordination still happens too little and only last-minute to add real proactivity to the Focac agenda from the African side. With Focac getting under way, an unprepared Africa is unlikely to have travelled with a strong collective, coherent agenda to Beijing, which is a missed opportunity indeed.

. Grimm is director and McDonald is research analyst at the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University.